Thursday, December 08, 2022

An Orange County couple and their infant daughter escape Ukraine, one step at a time

Jessie Boeckmann was in a Ukrainian hospital room with her newborn baby when she was awakened by the sound of explosives.

She roused her husband, Jacob, and climbed out of bed to look through the window.

“What are you doing?”

“I just heard bombs go off.”

“Are you sure?” he asked.

Seconds later, more explosions. It was clear. The city was under attack.

The couple from Orange County had come to Kyiv for the surrogate birth of their daughter, Vivian. But starting on the morning of Feb. 24 they were caught up in the biggest military invasion on European soil since World War II. The explosives outside their window launched them on a harrowing journey of escape.

For the next 34 hours, the two parents and their days-old daughter would travel by car and, for nearly eight miles, on foot, in freezing weather. They would eventually arrive at Ukraine’s border with Poland, a place teeming with desperation, as thousands of other refugees waited to escape the war.

Through it all, Jessie literally wore her baby, carrying Vivian under heavy coats in a sling that hung against chest. At one point, a guard looked at the newborn and asked just one question:

“Is she alive?”

Russian invasion

This wasn’t the first time the Costa Mesa couple traveled to Ukraine to expand their family. In 2019, their older daughter, Mary – named after both of her grandmothers – was born in Ukraine, also through a surrogate.

But that was a completely different experience than what the Boeckmanns encountered this time. From the instant the bombs went off, Jesse Boeckmann said, life went “from business as usual — normal, everyday things — to complete chaos.”

The attack, they both added, seemed to surprise many Ukrainians.

“We were aware of media reports and were monitoring what was happening,” said Jacob Boeckmann, 40, a plastic surgeon who owns Pacific Coast Facial Plastic Surgery in Laguna Niguel and also works at the UC Irvine Medical Center.

“But once we arrived in Kyiv (on Feb. 13,) we found that no one was really believing that Russia would ever invade,” he added. “It was, literally, business as usual.”

Vivian was born two days before the first explosions – a 2/22/22 baby. In Ukraine, unlike the US, newborns are required to stay two to three days in the hospital to ensure they’re OK before going home.

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Costa Mesa resident Jessie Boeckmann, holding her newborn daughter, Vivian, waits to cross at the border crossing in Shehyni, Ukraine. (Photo courtesy of Jacob Boeckmann)

On Thursday, after the explosions, the couple contacted their driver and asked to be picked up ASAP. But the driver’s wife was also pregnant, so he backed out. Still, he got them another driver, Val, who spoke only Russian, forcing them to communicate via a Google translation app.

Jessie called Val one of the “angels” on their journey.

“I told Jacob several times, ‘I don’t understand why this driver doesn’t make us get out of the car and just leave us,’” said Jessie, 39, an ophthalmologist with Acuity Eye Group in Costa Mesa.

The ride from Kyiv to the US Embassy in L’viv, Ukraine was supposed to be six hours. But when they got word that the embassy shut down, they turned toward the border between Ukraine and Poland. Val drove them for some 27 hours in heavy traffic on two-lane highways.

All the while, the driver’s family was calling him.

“A female kept calling him on the phone and yelling at him in Russian. I assume it was his wife or daughter. He would yell back at her and hang up,” Jessie said.

The driver’s family wanted him back home, the couple surprised.

“I knew what that tone meant,” Jacob said.

Maybe it was the tiny baby in her arms that prompted the man to take such risks and stay with the couple. Maybe it was routine decency. Jessie says, “I can’t thank him enough, from the bottom of my heart.”

As they drove, the couple spotted huge lines snaking around gas stations and ATMS. They drove past tanks and soldiers; they saw young children walking on the side of roads carrying luggage. The temperatures hovered mostly in the 20s.

‘She has a baby, 4 days old!’

As they came near the border, the traffic simply stopped. It was around 2 am Friday, Feb. 25, and they all decided to sleep in the car for a few hours. At daybreak, cars resumed moving — but only briefly. By 9 am traffic was again at a standstill.

They faced a decision. They still had about eight miles to reach the border, and the air was freezing below. But travel by automobile was no longer viable.

So Jessie put Vivian in her sling and Jacob picked up their two backpacks and luggage. And they joined the human line of newly minted Ukrainian refugees hoping to stay alive by fleeing their homeland.

The smell of auto fumes was overwhelming. They stopped frequently to check on the baby. And they walked.

“We were so close to the border,” Jacob said. “We thought things would improve.”

That did not happen.

“It was a big… crowded area without any crowd control or anyone directing traffic,” Jessie said. “Everybody would slam into each other. Think of a mosh pit… But here, there was desperation.”

“There’s no food, no blankets, no water, no bathrooms, no order, no calm,” she said. “There’s no hope.”

Time passed and tensions grew. So did the crowd trying to get through two gates.

As they waited, Jacob traded emails with officials with the US Embassy. Jacob said they suggested that he “plead our case” with the border guards.

As Americans, they were told, they should be able to get through the gate.

But first they had to get close.

As they stood in the crowd a man asked Jessie how old the baby was. Four days old, she said, before breaking down in tears.

That bit of information seemed to change things.

“You know how crowds take a life of their own?” Jacob asked.

“(The man) started yelling ‘She has a baby! Four days old! Let her through!”

“The crowd decided Jessie and our daughter deserved priority,” Jacob said. “They literally pushed Jessie and the baby through hundreds if not thousands of people to get her to the front.”

“It was an act of God,” he added. “People found it in their hearts to push her to the front of the lines.”

But as she moved forward, Jessie, already worried that the baby could suffer from hyperthermia, feared a different disaster.

“They were pushing me into the people in front of me. I was so worried that my baby would be crushed. I was yelling at them ‘I have a baby.’ I was crying.”

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Jessie Boeckmann and her husband, Jacob, went to Ukraine for the birth of their daughter through a surrogacy program and had to cross the border near Shehyni, Ukraine.(Photo courtesy of Jacob Boeckmann)

Jacob, meanwhile, was left behind.

“I pleaded my case,” he said. But his situation was not unique. “We’re all trying to get through,” he was told.

Hours later, their luggage left behind, Jacob edged closer to the gates.

“There was increasing volatility in the crowd. A lot of people were yelling at each other. There was a sense of desperation,” Jacob said.

Only women and children were being let out.

Meanwhile, Jessie had found her second set of angels with a Ukrainian American family that had also crossed over. While they were processing through customs, they helped her with the baby and held her spot in line. She turned back to yell to Jacob that she needed him to pass over baby formula, baby clothes and some documents.

Unlike the war-driven chaos of Ukraine, Poland offered order. The Red Cross was on hand. There was water and currency exchange. A volunteer driver – Jessie said her third angel – took Jessie, and Vivian and their new friends to a hotel some 90 minutes away. Jessie’s mother, Mary Miller of Arkansas, working with a friend who’s a travel agent, had secured them a room.

Jacob not allowed to cross

Jacob, meanwhile, was in Ukraine. The guards weren’t letting him out; they told him his American passport was fake.

“I pleaded and pleaded,” Jacob said. “After several hours, I made the guard mad because I wouldn’t shut up.”

It eventually took the intervention of the US Embassy and congress members (Reps. Steve Womack and Rick Crawford) from Jessie’s home state, Arkansas, to get Jacob out of Ukraine.

“The… embassy emailed a picture of my passport to the head guard, along with my phone number,” Jacob said. “I got a call from a guard and he escorted me across.”

Jessie escaped Ukraine at 5 pm, 34 hours after they had left Kyiv. Jacob crossed five hours later.

It’s unclear how many Americans are still in Ukraine.

A state department spokesperson wrote in an e-mail Friday that the US government doesn’t provide that information. The government has opened a welcome center for US citizens at the SPA Gloria Hotel in Przemyl , Poland, near the border. Other support teams are also working in other countries near the Ukrainian border, she wrote.

Back in Kyiv, the surrogate who gave birth to Vivian saw the apartment building she was staying in bombed. She was unharmed and able to travel to her hometown, several hours away, to be with her husband and their two children.

“Her husband wants to fight the Russians,” Jessie said. “He’s going to war.”

The Boeckmanns added that news accounts, as dire as some may look, do not begin to convey the scope of the unfolding tragedy.

“What we’re able to see on TV is just a sliver of the reality of what’s going on in Ukraine.

“We’re praying these people can find peace,” he said. “They’re just like you and me. They live in a democracy that was just attacked for no reason.”

Jacob said he feels guilty that he and his wife and new baby have a home to return to.

“We know we’re lucky because we get to go home.”

The family is hoping to fly back home Tuesday.

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